2001: Analytical entrepreneur

By Brian Hewitt

Scottsdale, Ariz.

It had been eight, long, sobering and frightening days since terrorists had attacked our national spirit, crippled our symbolic infrastructures and temporarily paralyzed our financial markets. Already, Lyle Anderson was ahead of the recovery curve. Already, his thinking was in place.

He sat calmly in a carefully appointed but studiously unpretentious Scottsdale office tucked at the end of a quiet street and soothingly predicted what was about to happen in his industry and in this country. He wore an open collared shirt and the relaxed look of a man who understood what had taken place and what the aftershocks were about to bring.

“It may be a month or two or six,” he said. “But I think the world economy will turn upward as a result of the unification of human spirit. Sometimes we have to be hit over the head by a 2-by-4. And we have been. It has been painful. But sometimes we’re forced to change. I think change is really good.”

Anderson is not the President of the United States. He is not the chairman of the Federal Reserve. He is not the Secretary of State. He is a real estate developer who specializes in golf communities. But his professional track record in his own area of expertise is largely unblemished.

His instincts, according to other power brokers in the Arizona business community, are the stuff of legend. And his disdain for climates of fear can be traced directly back to the boyhood time when his family lost almost everything it owned in a flood.

“I remember my dad was up to his chest in water,” Anderson says. “We were in the rowboat picking our goods up. He told me not to get out or I would drown.”

The family survived. Anderson has not been in over his head since.

“If anything psychological was working then, it was probably that fear was being taken away,” he says. “So many people don’t do things because they fear the consequences of failure. I’ve never had any fear.”

But now, in the chilling time of a prince of darkness named Osama bin Laden, Anderson was aware of the monster that fear was becoming in the United States. He was prepared for the question. And when it came, in his own understated way, Anderson spat in its face.

What will all this mean to the industry?

“I don’t think there are going to be any negatives in the long run,” Anderson said firmly. “I think there’s going to be a positive. I think people will cherish more some of the elements like security and the common elements of communities. I think there’s going to be somewhat of a movement, not en masse, away from major downtown metropolitan areas. Terrorism isn’t going to go away. It’s still going to be part of our psyche and lives. But I think people are going to move out of congested situations that just aren’t necessary. People want to choose their environment.”

Choices are what Lyle Anderson offers. He provides high-end golf environments fully loaded with amenities and teeming with quality appurtenances. He, more than any other developer, has branded the Jack Nicklaus name in golf course design. And he always has offered creative financing in uncertain economic times.

On this day, if you had $4.6 million lying around, Anderson had “Saguaro Lot 131” for you at Desert Mountain north of Scottsdale, featuring 6,050 square feet on .8 acres overlooking the ninth tee at Nicklaus’ Chiricahua course. Three bedrooms, 41⁄2 baths, three-car garage, guest house, pool and spa. Anderson wouldn’t be missing a beat.

“He can go,” says Dick Hyland, Anderson’s director of golf for 15 years at Desert Mountain. “His mind is always set on go. Always, always, always.”

Last October, Anderson was conducting a morning meeting with his top lieutenants at Scotland’s Loch Lomond Golf Club, one of his overseas properties and the site of the most recent Solheim Cup. The matches weren’t scheduled to begin for several days and the subject of a certain property in Spain worked its way into the conversation. Within minutes Anderson’s private jet was in the air. He had decided, on the spot, to inspect the location. So it was off to Iberia. That done, he was back in Glasgow for dinner the same night.

Bob Cantin was in Scotland that morning watching the Anderson group with fascination. The sheer dispatch with which Anderson and his people mobilized, Cantin said, was unforgettable. “Lyle Anderson never lets any grass grow under his feet,” he said.

He can go.

Cantin is a senior executive for Ping in Phoenix. His company sponsors the Solheim Cup. And he plays golf regularly with Anderson’s top aides. Cantin likes to talk about a recent gala at Anderson’s Superstition Mountain complex in the East Valley.

The clubhouse at Superstition Mountain is a 50,000-square-foot Tuscan design that utilizes mortar washed stone, set tile and aged stucco. The attention to detail is numbing and it is ubiquitous. At least one imported door near the front of the structure is older than the United States. The television cameras will have a field day with this building when The Tradition, a Senior Tour major, switches from Desert Mountain to Superstition (a move, Anderson says, that could take place as early as next year).

Anyway, said Cantin, “you could hold some very nice functions just in the ladies locker room at Superstition Mountain.” To be sure, that’s exactly where Cantin’s table was located at the 36-hole private facility’s Grand Opening. Surprise, surprise.

Creativity, Anderson says, stems from not being afraid to make mistakes which, he says, also helps promote a boundless energy. That energy, suggests the younger of his two sons, comes from his family’s humble beginnings that also produced a competitive streak.

“He was the first-born,” Troy Anderson says, noting there were hard times in addition to the family losses suffered in the flood. “And I think he was pretty motivated when he saw that vulnerability.”

Anderson is a single-digit handicapper who will take you on in pool, table tennis, bowling or just about any kind of game you can invent. At the University of Washington, Anderson majored in electrical engineering which accounts for his curiosity about how things work.

“He’ll tell me what he sees in my swing,” says Superstition Mountain director of golf Jeff Steury, one of several “teachers” who work with Anderson. Nicklaus, Hyland and nationally known swing guru Jim Flick are three others.

Curiosity, creativity, imagination, loyalty, quality . . . these words swirl in and out of Anderson’s daily conversation like passengers on a magic carpet ride. Loyalty to quality, he says, automatically will produce loyalty among individuals. And that will foster creativity. “Lyle is as good an out-of-the-box thinker as I’ve ever been around,” Hyland says.

“You never get ahead staying in bed,” says John Perkinson, last year’s Phoenix Open tournament director and a driving force in the Thunderbirds, a powerful Phoenix civic group. “Without Lyle Anderson, the Valley’s high-end golf development may very well have never taken place. If it did, it would have been a longer time in coming. Lyle Anderson wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out.”

He still isn’t. “My perspective,” he says, “has always been that I will live by my wits. If something happens, I will be one of the first people to bounce back. That’s just how I feel. I don’t have that fear.”

Which was sort of the point at a time in course development when a sluggish economy threatened to careen south in the immediate aftermath of the horrific events of Sept. 11. Many entrepreneurs pulled back in tragedy’s wake. Anderson weighed opportunities. Most people searched for direction. Anderson trusted his inner compass.

All of this is not to say Anderson is a man without detractors. In Hawaii, the Sierra Club has targeted Anderson and obtained a permanent injunction to halt an Anderson-Nicklaus project called Hokuli’a. At issue are environmental concerns. A bitter legal struggle has ensued.

Anderson has spent millions on the project and is frustrated for several reasons. First, his record on the environment at his Desert Mountain, Desert Highlands and Superstition Mountain developments is spotless. Second, he has little patience with organizations whose agendas he believes, are set before they know his plans. Because of the legal issues, Anderson’s hands are tied with regard to public statements. He will say little other than: “In some corners, at least by some people, we’re guilty until proven innocent. It’s extremely distasteful.”

Tom Doak, the hottest young course architect in America, played golf with Anderson several years ago but doubts he will ever work for Anderson. “His deals with Nicklaus are a franchise,” Doak says. “It’s a formula that has worked: A lot of the original investors in Desert Highlands buy a lot for each of his subsequent deals and sell it later for a profit. What that does is create the ‘instant demand’ that makes others want to buy.”

The message from the fiercely independent Doak is clear: Don’t ever count on seeing his name and the words “branding” or “franchise” in the same sentence.

Says Anderson flatly, when asked about hiring Doak: “I would consider using a whole host of people.”

Anderson’s list even includes himself. He has studied long and hard under Nicklaus and might design a course for himself one day. The plans for his “Festival Ranch” project west of Phoenix include the possibility of as many as 10 golf courses. Anderson says he has talked to Nicklaus about Festival Ranch and already there is an understanding between the two that Anderson will likely hire other designers in addition to Nicklaus.

Anderson also will have major input on “The Outlaw,” which will be Nicklaus’ sixth course at Desert Mountain. It’s in the planning stages right now and scheduled to open in 2003. It will present a more grassy, linksy feel than Nicklaus’ previous target-oriented desert courses.

“We don’t argue,” Anderson says of his design discussions with Nicklaus. “Do we debate? Sure we do.”

Nicklaus, too, in case anybody has forgotten, is something of a competitor. Anderson and Nicklaus became close as a result of their business relationship that started with a cold call from Anderson to the Nicklaus offices in 1980. Nicklaus’ sons got to know Anderson’s sons. Now, Nicklaus says, “we’ve all become very close friends.”

Adds Jack, who is eight months older than the 60-year-old Anderson: “Lyle has the uncanny knack for the finding the right piece of property in the right location and, just as important, at the right time for the development of that property.”

Anderson loves to tell the story, symbolic of their relationship, about the first time he flew on Nicklaus’ private plane and what happened after the plane touched down on the tarmac. “I was in awe like anybody would be,” Anderson said. “So I went over to grab my bag and then went over to grab Jack’s bag. And he grabbed my arm. Then he grabbed my bag and said, ‘Let me carry your bag.’ I said, ‘No.’ “

Finally, Nicklaus said, ‘I’ll carry my bag and you carry your bag.’ That’s the way Jack is. He doesn’t consider himself better than most people.”

Anderson, by all accounts, is the same way. He is private about his personal life. He is neither loud nor boisterous in public. Anybody who has done business with him will tell you he is as focused as a bullet in flight. And that focus can be intimidating.

Hyland says it’s not intentional. “Lyle would rather listen than talk,” he says, adding he knows he’s expected to tell Anderson what he “needs” to hear not what he “wants” to hear. “But he’s always testing you. And if he asks you a question, you’d better be ready with an answer.”

“I’ve never seen him pull rank,” Cantin says.

Publicly, Anderson is similar to Cantin’s boss at PING, John Solheim. Neither are comfortable in the spotlight. The big difference is Anderson is a born entrepreneur, always creating and selling. Solheim, like his father Karsten, is a natural engineer, more of a tinkerer than Anderson.

When Anderson was 11 years old he raised chickens and sold eggs near his family’s Washington home. He picked berries and sold them. He made leather goods. He had paper routes. “I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” he says proudly.

Golf showed up early on the Anderson radar screen when his father’s little nine-hole golf course was among the family’s losses in the flood. “I spent a year at that golf course and then suddenly it was gone,” he says.

This helps explain why Anderson looks at the fix our country is as an opportunity. He has made something out of nothing before. He knows the map home from oblivion like the back of his hand. The United States, he says, will make it, too. He stops short of advising people to blindly follow his lead in the uncertain months ahead. And he admits there are things that scare him. “I fear bad health, accidents and my children having problems,” he says.

But in a crisis, he won’t allow paralysis when analysis is available. John F. Kennedy reminded us that the word “crisis.” when written in Chinese, is composed of two characters. “One,” Kennedy said, “represents danger. The other represents opportunity.”

Anderson’s take on it is a little more seamless and a lot more simple.

“I think of things,” he says.

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